Sunday, September 30, 2007

In The Magazine Of The Paper Of Record

The New York Times Magazine today published an article on Teach For America. I'm quoted.

For it's size, and the relatively large scope of its topic, the article does a strong job laying out issues. I want only to respond to this quote by the Senior Vice President of Recruiting: “We are completely agnostic about what people do after their two years.”

1) The talking point situation within the TFA power structure has gotten completely out-of-hand. I can no longer count the number of times a TFA employee has used the word agnostic to describe the organization's stance with regard to teaching past the two-year cut-off, both in person and in print.

2) TFA is not "agnostic." I believe that in TFA a) nothing is accidental and b) frequency of occurrence connotes degree of importance. TFA chooses to highlight, and thus place value upon certain accomplishments and courses of actions -- grade school acceptance rate, charter schools, corporate partnerships -- at a much higher rate than anything having to do with teaching. An organizational agnosticism would be evidenced by a far more equal distribution of PR.

3) TFA should not be "agnostic." You got us here by fetishizing the role of teacher. You filled heads and hearts with the powerful stories of life-change, and some people had experiences that matched the rhetoric. You demanded improvement and set high expectations for corps members to succeed a level beyond that which most teachers achieve, and some people did just that. Two years later you're "agnostic"? From whence does this agnosticism derive? This institutional schizophrenia smacks of self-promotion and a certain amount of blindness. TFA has been around for over a decade at this point. All those folks running off to engage the "second half of the mission" should have had a demonstrable effect on public education at this point. How exactly have all the doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and grad students with two years teaching experience improved the educational outcomes of America's poor?

In thinking and writing about TFA's second half of the mission, some folks (here, for example) bring up the examples of The New Teacher Project, Michelle Rhee, and the little KIPPers. Once, maybe, what was meant by the second half of the mission was folks who continue to work in education as principals, central office staff, non-profit founders, consultants, etc. No longer. For TFA, the second half of the mission has nothing at all to do with education. They say so themselves. The second half of the mission is former teachers working in politics, former teachers getting elected to things, former teachers winning awards, starting companies, and so on. The second half isn't other stuff in education that isn't teaching; the second half is the nebulus, non-data driven, PR-dependent movement to make TFA corps members be to America what the Hapsburgs once were to Europe.

Still more:
My mom said I sounded "whiny."


Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. The fact that Business Week has just named TFA #10 on its list of "Top 95 places to Launch a Career" supports your argument.

The Business Week piece includes a boatload of data on TFA that I hadn't seen before, including the fact that 71 % of its chosen recruits are female, only 9% African American. So apparently they're now agnostic about the theory that TFA brings diversity into the teaching ranks as well.

Any initiative that recruits bright people into high-needs schools is good. I personally know a number of TFA teachers; one is actually still teaching (brilliantly). To walk past the retention issue (which has huge economic implications for schools as well) by claiming agnosticism is disingenuous.

1:39 PM  
Blogger ms. v. said...

Yeah, that quote bothered me as well... for the reasons you describe. And the talking points thing is over-the-top... it was in my day, and I can't say from personal experience now, but I can only imagine it's even worse. Everyone is on-message, all the time. Probably from spending two years repeating themselves 60 times a day to children... ;-) Oh, wait, that's me.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, next time they ask me to give them some money, I'm going to tell them that I'm an alum who's "agnostic" about TFA.

3:44 PM  

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